Last week, I wrote about what to expect from a mentorship and I promised I would share what I had learnt so far. In this first Mentorship Moment post, I’ll cover how outlining can get you out of, and into trouble.
Spatial awareness is not a forte of mine. I once got lost coming out of a toilet block and I never get somewhere the same way twice. Travelling with me is always an adventure.
In this case, my GPS is my best friend. With it, I can go wherever I want. Without it, I wonder if I’ll starve to death while endlessly circling one-way streets. My confidence evaporates.
The same can happen if you venture out onto a blank page without an outline to show you the way. Deb, my mentor, likens it to driving from Melbourne to Perth without a map. We often know how a story starts and ends. It’s the vast middle that’s the problem.
It’s the endless possibilities. Much like driving across Australia, you can take any direction you fancy. You can write whatever story you want, make any number of choices regarding character, and build whatever world pops into mind. That probably sounds pretty good, until you realise that you’re going around in circles, or that you’ve written yourself into yet another dead end.
Even worse, that blank page stays blank.
In writing, confidence is key. Anything that saps your confidence is the kiss of death. And nothing feeds doubt better than hours of panicked frustration, staring at a blank page, facing infinite choices and not being able to see how you’re going to get from beginning to end.
So, how do we find our way across that vast middle? Create way-points for yourself: little stations that you can write towards. In short, create an outline that covers the important moments in your narrative.
When the entire narrative has been broken down into smaller, manageable chunks, the writing gets easier. If you’re a short story writer like me, you can even treat each chunk as a mini short story, with a beginning, middle and end. Now, instead of staring at a blank page, wondering ‘what next’, you have a target to write to. A target that’s much closer and more achievable than that distant climax. Each time you hit one of those targets, your confidence gets a boost.
A word of caution: check the level of detail. If, like me, you’ve tried plotting and found yourself no closer to busting through writer’s block, it could be because you’ve written yourself a straitjacket. Keep it simple. An exhaustive outline that details every minute point in the narrative can be just as bad for writer’s block as no outline at all.
The problem? There’s no wriggle room. There’s no allowance for those awesome moments when characters shove past you and start to write their own stories.
Writing an outline that gives only a basic map of the narrative allows space for you to find your way through the story as you write, while keeping your ending in sight. It leaves room for creativity and can be the perfect balance between ‘pantsing’ (writing by the seat of your pants) and plotting. You’ll get from Melbourne to Perth and you’ll write ‘the end’. Which, by the way, is one of the best things for a writer’s confidence.
What sort of writer are you? Are you a pantser or a plotter, or something in between? Have you tried plotting and tangled yourself up in too much detail? Give a simpler outline a try. I hope this first Mentorship Moment has helped you along.
Next week in Mentorship Moment No. 2, I’ll share one of the most important aspects of pacing.